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Nepal 

Old Images , New Insights 


edited by 
Pratapaditya Pal 
























TIME AND SPACE 
IN TANTRIC ART 

Sthaneshwar Timalsina 


i 

Guhyakali, depicting multiple layers of time 
and space. Zimmerman Collection, photograph 
courtesy Jack Zimmerman. 


Introduction 

Tantric traditions , 1 having evolved from local belief-systems that were 
accretions of the worship of village deities, survived in distinct forms in 
various parts of the Indian subcontinent. After the decline of tantra in 
Kashmir and the rise of Bhakti-oriented movements in other parts of India, 
multiple tantric traditions waned. The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, which is 
the northern boundary of the Indian subcontinent, preserved unique tantric 
practices that were extinguished elsewhere. This occurred not only because of 
its invincible geological barriers, but also because of the Malla kings who 
founded the unique fusion of the Hindu Vedic system with Shakta tantric 
traditions. For about a millennium, the Newar community, under the rule of 
Malla kings, developed a unique style of art and architecture that is vibrant in 
its artistic nature. Here, multiple forms of artistic and philosophical symbols 
conjoin in a richly esoteric representation. Nepalese tantric art, on one hand, 
is singular in its aesthetic vision, while on the other, it is an extension of the 
widespread tantric heritage that stretched from Bengal in the east to Kashmir 
in the west, and from the Himalaya in the north to the ocean in the south. In 
this essay, our quest is to understand tantric art in general, using examples of 
Newar paintings that synthesize aesthetic beauty with components of 
traditional religious practice. 

The richly symbolic art of South Asian tantra remains vibrantly alive in 
the form of mandalas and sculptures. This potent alliance of visual structure 
and symbolism has attracted several contemporary scholars to examine and 
interpret these phenomena. Nevertheless, an understanding built upon the 
framework of the tradition that developed this artwork is for the most part 
missing in the overwhelmingly Eurocentric analysis. Our approach will be to 
analyse these arts from the perspective of classical Indian thought, primarily 
the Trika Shaiva doctrine. We will also consider the points raised by the 
practitioners of these mandalas as expressed in their descriptions of tantric 
art. 

Mandalas, geometric designs that are utilized for the visualization of 
deities, emerged in their early form in the Vedic rituals performed around lire 
altars . 2 These basic designs developed into more complex forms in the later 
Vedic rituals such as Agnichayana, which is among the structural precursors 
to tantric mandalas. In these early rituals, the mandala served to mediate 
between the mundane world and the cosmic worlds of the deities through the 
symbols of sacred time and space . 3 This essay considers the deep structure of 
time and space found in the ritual art of the mandala. 



22 STHANESIIWAR TIMALSINA 


Classical Indian literature dealing with art or 
architecture highlights the details of the principal 
designs with very little explication of their 
meaning . 4 Tantric literature, in contrast, explores 
the basic principles that underlie these structures. 
This article thus also investigates meanings found 
in the art of the mandala from the perspective of 
tantric literature. 

The Artist 

The artist defines himself in relation to the 
artwork he creates. For mandalas, a particular 
design is most often a collaborative work of the 
tantric practitioner who visualizes the design and 
the professional artist who materializes the visions 
and concepts of the yogin into the mandala. In 
some instances, even the materialization of the 
conceptual framework requires a set of artists. In 
this case, “the artist” represents all these 
collaborators, including the first architect, the 
designer. 

Two aspects in the development of mandalas 
warrant examination: first, a mandala represents 
complex concepts inscribed by practitioners at 
different times over hundreds of years; second, a 
mandala is a simulacrum with multiple, similar 
mandalas emerging with different implications. 
Srichakra, for example, embodies different 
ritualistic phases developed over the course of 
time . 5 In this context, “the artist” is not a specific 
figure who creates a particular mandala, but 
rather the dynamic mind that evolves over the 
course of the mandala’s history of construction 
and visualization. 

After manifesting the painting or sculpture, the 
artist “dissolves” into the art, denying his separate 
identity. There is no artist’s signature, nothing 
identifying a particular maker. He does not intend 
to be the “creator” of the “object” created 
“outside” his mind. The painting or sculptural 
object then receives the ritual act of life 
installation, and transforms into the divinity itself. 
The artist is no longer the creator of that 
mandala, but rather a devotee of the divine. 

Unlike one devotee who offers his life in 
meditation upon a single mandala, the artist does 
not rely solely on one image; he instead 
demonstrates the constant stream of creativity 


and accepts himself as an instrument for its 
manifestation. Using the metaphor of Shiva as an 
artist, the world becomes his painting, made 
visible with the brush of his desire, with he 
himself being the canvas, the perceiver, and 
admirer of that artwork . 6 The mandala, then, is a 
microcosm of the world, and the artist its lord 
and creator. 

This also explains why traditional artists 
remain hidden within their artwork, rarely 
identified as a particular artist or maker. The artist 
knows that he metaphorically resides within the 
artwork, where, denying his individuality while 
simultaneously an instrument to manifest the 
divine form, he assumes his divinity preserved in 
the art. The self-awareness of the artist matches 
that of the practitioner: both envision their 
identity as divine, not merely confined within 
their human form. 

The artist alone directs his creativity , 7 this 
autonomy designated as the intuitional power 
(pratibha), the potency to manifest objects outside 
of the mind. This very pratibha is the power of 
autonomy superimposed upon the order of 
manifest objects . 8 Pratibha , the precondition for 
creativity and simultaneously its inherent power, 
equals the pure illumination of consciousness 
from which udyoga (effort) manifests, replete with 
will, knowledge, and action . 9 Although pratibha 
resides beyond the sequence of time or space, its 
manifestation rests upon sequence (ferama ), 10 in a 
dyad of time and space." 

According to tantras, the deity and the 
practitioner are identical in their true nature. 
Tantric art mediates the ordinaiy realm of 
experience in which the artist or practitioner 
remains bound and perceives himself as different 
from the divinity, within the succession of time 
and space. For the artist who also practises the 
teachings of a specific mandala, the geometric 
form or emanation of the central deity is but his 
own self-portrait. Bindu , the drop at the centre of 
the mandala, represents the self in its unitary 
form, while the complete mandala depicts the self 
in its immanence. The singularity and plurality of 
the self are but two aspects of the same reality, 
with artists depicting the latter. 

“Mandala” is a portrait of the self, 
corresponding to a single body, with the divine 
body identical to the body of the yogin. Some 
mandalas contain complete mandalas nested 
within them, congruent with different limbs of the 



TANTRIC ART 23 


2 

Sri Yantra (The Art of Tantra , 
Philip Rawson, p. 76, figure 56). 










































m 24 


STHANESHWAR TIMALSINA 


yogin, while other mandalas show various deities 
and yogins within the single mandala, 
demonstrating how micro- and macrocosm 
intersect and interweave. Infinite forms of 
mandalas depict the infinitude of self¬ 
manifestation possible in both manifest and latent 
forms, its potency remaining in the primordial 
form of pratibha, creativity. 

The Mandala 

The world as mandala is the expression of the 
cosmic power residing in Shiva, who is pure, 
unindividuated consciousness. A mandala as a 
painting is the depiction of the world that is not 
different from Shiva personified. It is the 
extension of that very pratibha now residing as 
individualized consciousness in the heart of the 
artist. 12 Mandalas are of two forms: the deity 
mandala and geometric mandala. The deity 
mandala gives anthropomorphic form to the deity 
internalized in the ritual practice of visualization; 
this process highlights the body as complete and 
divine, with various gestures and postures 
representing different modes of consciousness that 
manifest in the sequence of time and space. The 
ritual mandala consists of various geometric 
forms, with the triangle, square, differently- 
petalled lotuses, and circles manifesting the family 
of a particular deity. All deities in the periphery 
emanate from the central deity. 

Since the world is the manifest form of the 
Self, the mandala depicts the world, with all 36 
categories located within it. A mandala, as a 
symbolic language expressing the matrix of time, 
reveals the three paths of time designated in 
terms of letters, words, and mantras; as a 
blueprint of the cosmos, it represents space in its 
threefold manifestation of the limiting factors 
(kala), categories ( tattva ), and cosmic worlds 
( bhuvana ). Fundamentally, different categories are 
visualized in the course of meditation on a 
specific mandala. 

The Self is consciousness in itself, 13 
autonomous in manifesting the world upon 
itself, 14 as an image is painted on a canvas. 15 This 
consciousness assumes krama, or sequence, as it 
gradually unfolds in the form of astral and 
physical worlds. 16 The sequence of consciousness 


manifesting in the form of the world is depicted 
in an individual as the four stages of waking, 
dreaming, deep sleep, and transcendent awareness. 
In the cosmic order, this sequence is described in 
terms of creation, sustenance, contraction, and the 
nameless state. The tantric tradition primarily 
focuses on the fifth state as beyond 
transcendence. 17 The geometric shapes - square, 
bindu, triangle, or circle - are analysed in terms 
of states of consciousness. Tantra focuses on the 
sequence of awareness within the triad of subject, 
object, and knowledge that manifests in the four 
stages of consciousness. This manifests as twelve 
levels of awareness, generally depicted as twelve 
petals of a lotus. 18 

In accordance with the idea that time and 
space govern the entire realm of existence, 
mantras belong to the sphere of time, while the 
cosmic worlds are the extension of consciousness 
in space. The mandala represents this in 
microcosmic form. Consciousness alone is the 
supreme reality, with time and space its 
modifications. The deity mandala highlights the 
“pure consciousness” aspect, with reality in the 
form of the world, whereas the geometric 
mandalas stress the immanence of the Absolute. 
Time and space manifest in multiple spheres, 
demonstrated primarily in the power circles of the 
mandala. These cosmic centres of power are 
invoked in the ritual mandala in a specific time 
and space to awaken the sleeping dormant forces 
identified within its configuration. 

From its earliest manifestation, the mandala 
utilizes the structure of a family ( kula ), stressing 
that the deities never emerge alone and are 
always shown in a circle. Deities residing in the 
external square of the mandala represent space, 
whereas the inner layers represent time in the 
triangular forms. The centre or the “drop” (bindu) 
is the deity in its pure essence, uniting the mother 
and father aspects as well as time and space. The 
multiplicity of deities reveals a structure of power 
governing the limited structure of time and space, 
its plurality reciprocal to the consciousness 
manifest in accordance with the object and 
subject of experience. 

Bindu : The Cosmic Centre 

The tantric mandala is an expansion of the bindu 
(drop) into the periphery. In this process, the drop 
splits into two, red and white; the drop emerges 
into “emission” (visarga). 19 When united with the 



bindu , this visarga gives rise to a triangle. This is 
the very one from which emerges the dichotomy 
of red and white, the visarga of mother and 
father principles. This bipolar coexistence unites 
with the original oneness, manifesting the 
unending flow of the movement of two into one, 
and then the outward movement of primordial 
awareness into the dichotomy of subject and 
object, of consciousness and matter. The extension 
of a drop is a circle, always depicted in a 
mandala within a square, manifesting the 
extension of space. The mandala culminates in 
the bindu and the bindu unfolds into the 
mandala. The tradition of Tripura teaches a 
sixfold meditation inside the bindu , with another 
mandala apparent within it, demonstrating two 
dimensions of the inner and external expansion 
of bindu. The inner extension can be compared 
with subjective time and space, while the external 
extension of bindu manifests as commonly 
perceived space and time. 20 

This twofold process of introversion and 
extroversion underlies the construction of 
mantras. The first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet a 
is understood as a drop from which all letters 
emerge and dissolve. Mantras consist of varied 
combinations of fifty letters, which in turn 
emanate from the first letter. The first letter is 
known as anuttara (transcendent), 21 whereas the 
last letter h is known as visarga. All the other 
letters are expansions of bindu and visarga. The 
bindu is depicted as white and visarga as red; 
these two colours play the role of the male and 
female principle in a mandala. 

Consciousness manifests in a dichotomy of 
sound and light, with mantra the sound form, and 
mandala the light form. The aspect of sound is 
the manifestation of time, and mandala, the visual 
representation of light, is the manifestation of 
space. The existence of time and space 
presupposes consciousness, because in the absence 
of consciousness, no experience is possible, and 
entities cannot be proven without having them 
experienced. Bindu , as consciousness in subjective 
expression and a drop in objective manifestation, 
is the blueprint of both subjective and objective 
modifications in accordance with time and space. 
The subjective and objective are combined: in the 
absence of awareness, no world can be confirmed; 
in the absence of a drop, no mandala is possible. 

Thus the bindu is the autonomous subject 22 
which gives rise to mandala 2J when the bindu 


desires by its own power to manifest in a 
particular form. 2 ' 1 The bindu , as unmanifest form, 
retains the potency of all forms, and when 
manifest in a particular form, becomes a 
particular mandala. The bindu is the abstracted 
form of time and space in which both are 
identical. Bindu is the transcendent [anuttara), 
unitary form of red and white, of light and 
reflection, as well as the seminal drop that in a 
yogin flows upward during transformation. In this 
last sense, bindu is parama-sukha , extreme bliss. 25 

The bindu is the latent form of kundalini ; 
when the bindu pulsates, the kundalini rises. At 
the centre of the mandala, bindu metaphorically 
represents the sun in the cosmos. As planets move 
around the sun, the inner and external senses 
move around the seminal drop. The yogin 
transcends the limitations of time and space by 
residing in the state of this very drop. Notions of 
mind and individuality arise when the bindu 
vibrates; time and space subsequently appear. 
Bindu, the subjective awareness, has the inherent 
potency to manifest all forms. The bindu 
multiplies infinitely by itself, with all space as its 
extension, its singularity embodying its plurality. 

The extension of the bindu into the form of a 
circle is empty space, the locus wherein all 
entities exist. As the centre of the mandala, the 
bindu is consciousness in itself, addressed as the 
sky or the void of consciousness. 26 This space is 
all pervading, depicted in the mandala as the 
square or circle that delimits the outer boundary. 
Srichakra symbolizes space in a reverse order to 
the Buddhist Kalachakra: in the former the circle 
resides inside the square, whereas in the latter, the 
square rests within the circle. The meaning is the 
same: space pervades all that exists. In a mandala, 
there is no imagery beyond this boundary, 
because everything that exists is within it. 

In Newar-style mandala painting, the 
underlying philosophy of infinite bindus emerging 
from a single bindu and the painting method 
merge: the mandala consists of myriad drops, 
painted one after another. The brush of the 
painter systematically applies the colour to a 
specific place, embodying the touch of the artist 
in one point at one moment of application, each 
drop in itself the complete universe. Some deity 



26 STHANESHWAR TIMALSINA 


mandalas detail a complete deity within a single 
crown ornament This crowning point is the 
centre of consciousness within which the entire 
universe abides. Thus, in painting a single drop, 
the artist also paints the complete mandala. 

Some contemporary scholars stress that the 
square and circle are the root matrices of formal 
structures underlying artistic creations. 27 From the 
tantric perspective, the square and circle are not 
the primordial structure, but rather are the fully 
manifest forms of the inner structures revealed in 
each drop of paint. When the bindu pulsates, it 
assumes a curved form. The curve is the divine 
resonation (nada), generally depicted as a half¬ 
circle that signifies its wave-form. Metaphorically, 
these two aspects of bindu and ncida represent 
respectively Shiva and Shakti, or the male and 
female principles. 

The Image of Time and Space 
The two tantric deities that most clearly elucidate 
time and space are Kali, the mistress of time, and 
Bhuvaneshwari, mistress of the world. Kali, the 
feminine form of time who transcends all 
sequence, is terrifying in appearance, whereas 
Bhuvaneshwari is beautiful. These images are not 
static, but dynamically evolving in more complex 
forms of wrath and beauty. The horrific form of 
Kali culminates in the Kali that transcends the 
wheel of succession and resides in her immanent 
and transcendent form, 28 whereas the beautiful 
form culminates in Mahatripurasundari. Kali, the 
mistress of time, is depicted as a hlack deity, 
while Bhuvaneshwari is shown as red. The 
application of black and red colours as 
corresponding to these deities suggests that the 
ritual use of colours is representative of the 
categories of time and space that have infinite 
configurations. 

This description evokes some essential concepts 
underlying colour distribution. Space and time 
can be visualized as the male and female 
principles, with time located in space, envisioned 
as the familiar Kali image astride Shiva. But this 
is not a fixed image. Shiva manifests in time as 
the Mahakala forms, whereas Shakti’s emanation 
in space manifests as Bhuvaneshwari, discussed 
above. All these depictions of time and space 


share a similar use of colour. The familiar image 
of Shiva's family depicts Shakti in red, seated on 
the lap of Shiva, who is shown in white. As light 
or prakasha , Shiva is white in colour, whereas the 
feminine power deity is regarded as reflection or 
vimarsha , with vimarsha depicted as red. 

Kamakala is visualized as three drops, white, red, 
and black in colour. Frequently, black is replaced 
with the mixed colour of white and red. This triad 
is the primordial creative force that underlies the 
fundamental structure of the world, and the 
depiction of mandala employs this triadic use and 
meaning of colour. 29 

A single deity manifests all phases of life in a 
single day, depicted as red in the morning, white 
during the day, the colour of smoke during the 
evening, and all colours late at night. This 
distribution of colour is clearly visible on the 
faces of the deities and is also expressed through 
their garments. This sequence is common to the 
Tripurasundari and other major deity practices 
such as Kubjika or Kali. The later Brahmanic 
tradition of Gayatri practice has applied this 
method of visualizing a single deity in different 
forms in a single day. Five fundamental principles 
are depicted with the addition of two more 
colours, yellow and green. Whether the mandala 
is of the five Buddhas, or of the five faces of 
Shiva, the structure an artist follows is the same. 
The basic alignment of seven colours with seven 
Matrikas symbolically relates colour to specific 
deities, with colour seen as the extension of light. 
In a mandala, 360 rays concentrate into different 
centres. In the six-chakra system, the number of 
rays is divided into different chakras, whereas in 
other mandalas, the rays are distributed in 
different layers of a single mandala. 

Specific aspects of the divinity depict both the 
beauty of space and the wrath of time, giving rise 
to wrathful beauty, which can be visualized in 
images of Durga. Her beauty transcends erotic 
desire, and sexual lust is depicted as the buffalo¬ 
headed demon beneath her feet. She is the eternal 
virgin, possessing such strength that none can 
defeat her to make her a bride. 30 Durga is the 
highest embodiment of space and time; her form 
depicts the beautiful aspect of space, whereas her 
gestures, vehicle, and surrounding circle of flames 
represent ferocious time. “Durga” is 
etymologically closer to the deities of space (from 
durga meaning fort) and mythologically an 
embodiment of the unified power of all deities. 



TANTRIC ART 27 


Depicted surrounded by flames that indicate time 
( kolagni ), she is fundamentally a deity associated 
with space, transcending the black demonic time 
throbbing with lust. 

The richly complex structure of the Guhyakali 
Mandala gives form to symbolic layers of time. 
“Cremation grounds” in the empty areas 
surrounding the mandala demonstrate the 
outermost sphere of time, where “time” is 
experienced in death itself. The surrounding 
“door-keeping” deities delimit the expansion of 


space. Without the delimitation of space or 
definition of a boundary, creation does not occur, 
whether on the physical plane or in the astral 
world. The mandala, therefore, defines the space 
of the astral world, through which the 
individuality of a practitioner is merged into 
divine experience. This limitation is measured 


3 

Guhyakali Yantra ( Yantra: The 
Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity, 
Madhu Khanna, p. 151, figure 
81). 














28 STHANESHWAR 


TIMALSINA 


















TANTRIC ART 29 



through Matrikas (the measuring deities), who are 
subordinate to the spiral of time in this mandala. 
The central deity, Guhyakali, governs “unrevealed 
time”. Dikpalcis , depicted in the layer immediately 
surrounding this deity, symbolize divine space as 
not “elsewhere”, separate from the sphere that is 
ordinarily perceived; rather, this sphere transcends 
the common notion of space. The vertical, visual 
folds of deities, therefore, not only symbolize an 
elevation in internal time, but also demonstrate 
sanctified space in the ascending layer governed 
by deities with higher consciousness. 

The central deity, Guhyakali, rests atop a 
pyramid of deities with gradually ascending levels 
of consciousness. They do not gradually extend 
into space, since all of them manifest at once in a 
single moment, and all exist together. The lowest 
sphere is made of manus , the semi-divine beings 
in each kalpa. Dikpolos ride elevated above the 
manus , an indication of a higher realm of time 
and space. An infinite number of lower-sphere 
beings are encompassed within the subjective 
notion of the higher-sphere being. Each is created 
by its immediate, higher-stage being, and those in 
the same layer also have their own gradual order 
of extension in time and space. Five deities, or 
five pretas , are generally depicted as a vehicle of 
the central goddess, Kali, or Tripura, or any other 
major deity. Yet among these, a hierarchy of 
deities emerges, with Mahakala, Manthana, or 
Nirvanabhairava identified as the highest form of 
time upon which the goddess rides. Guhyakali is 
also shown embracing, or being embraced by, her 
consort Bhairava. This spiral visualization with 
hierarchical divinities merging into flame 
symbolizes that kalagni, or the fire of time, 
becomes one with chidagni, the fire of awareness, 
in this highest state of awareness. Successive 
stages of time and space depict their extension 
from a commonly perceived ground to awareness 
in itself. The Guhyakali image culminates in 
flame, with Kalasankarshini, the highest deity in 
the sequence, who consumes time within herself 
and who is envisioned solely as a flame. 

Kala (time) and krama (sequence) are 
interrelated. The krama deities are worshipped in 
a wheel divided into twelve, with eveiy deity 
manifesting in her own mandala of twelve deities. 


4 (opposite) 

Mandala of the Sun God. 
Photograph courtesy John Ford. 

5 

Subtle Body and Cosmic Man. 
Photograph courtesy Navin 
Kumar. 












3 0 STHANESHWAR TIMALSINA 


The extension of the wheel of Kali gives rise to 
144 emanations of Kali, twelve deities multiplied 
by twelve deities. Each of these foundational 
deities contains a complete mandala of the 
twelve-fold succession, with every aspect 
replicating the cosmic representation within itself. 
The internal strata of this wheel of time are 
complex, and the yogin practises it to experience 
modifications of Kali in all these emanations 
which are lustful to consume time. 

The visualization of time as divine is found in 
the iconic form of Kali, which in krama 
categories, range from the Kali depicting creation 
(Srishtikali) to the Kali depicting the nameless 
state of an extremely horrific manifestation of the 
twelfth deity. This interpretation follows the 
krama doctrine according to which the deities 
manifest in a sequence and are immanent. 
Mahartha doctrine, on the other hand, advocates 
transcendence of the deity, according to which the 
supreme deity is the thirteenth manifestation. In 
both cases, the deities manifest successively in 
more and more horrific forms. The external 
beauty, according to this perspective, is a 
momentary manifestation which dissolves in the 
inner beauty of self-awareness. There are several 
etymological derivations of the term Kali, all 
designating different modifications of time, and 
all fundamentally derived from kalana , pulsating. 
Meditation upon these aspects of time is common 
to the father deity of Bhairava or Kala, as well as 
to Kali, the mother deity. Since prakasha or light 
is the aspect of father, and vimarsha or reflection 
is the aspect of mother, the father-practice of 
Bhairava focuses on light or the awareness-aspect 
of time, whereas in the mother practice, reflection 
is the predominant mode. 

All deities emanate from and rest upon the 
heart of the yogin. 31 Mental modifications of a 
yogin lead to the manifestation of a particular 
deity, whereas an ordinary human being 
understands his/her experience as merely 
mundane. Tantric art portrays beauty as divine, 
depicting different mental modifications as divine 
forms. Guhyakali, or the deity of esoteric-time, 
and Kamakalakali, the Kali in the form of all 
aspects of desire, are two basic strata supporting 
time visualized in the form of divinity. 


Static and Dynamic Aspects of Time 
The mandala embodies both static and dynamic 
aspects of time and space in its synchronic and 
diachronic manifestations. The sun mandala, for 
instance, represents the entire solar system, 
including the zodiac and all constellations, with 
their centre and periphery shown as revolving 
around the sun. This mandala is a yogic version 
of the physical plane, with the sun representing 
the seminal drop at the centre, from which the 
mandala arises. However, the stable phases of all 
constellations or stars are specific modes which 
scarcely occur in the entire life of a solar system. 
A mandala resembles the solar system, assuming 
the central deity as the sun. When compared to 
the sun mandala, deity mandalas are also in 
dynamic flux. What is remarkable is that the 
centre, static with regard to its periphery, is 
dynamic in itself. The sun rides a chariot driven 
by seven horses, a depiction of dynamism. 

While the sun mandala is very explicit, this is 
not the only mandala associated with the solar 
system. Tripurasundari is praised as an 
embodiment of all constellations, planets, zodiacs, 
and stars. 32 All the manuals of meditation start 
with installation of all constellations and stars in 
their mantra form, paralleling the way 
Tripurasundari manifests within the body. Thus 
the solar system is equated with the deity of 
meditation, which is also the body of the 
practitioner. A yogin envisions his movements as 
the movements of the stars and constellations, 
and in this meditation, the complete universe is 
condensed in a single body of the practitioner. 

However, this is merely one structure of the 
manifestation of time. Different time cycles are 
depicted within a single mandala. For example, in 
the Guhyakali Mandala, the time cycles depicted 
are those of the maims, dikpalas , and the five 
pretas , 33 Above this cycle lies Mahakala, upon 
which dances Kali. As Guhyakali, she is depicted 
with one or more jackals surrounding her. The 
presence of jackals suggests the isolated cremation 
ground, while their sound approximates the seed 
mantra of Guhyakali. 

Time and Eternity 

Since tantra regards the supreme deity as 
unbound by time or space, the goddess assumes 
by her own free will a multitude of forms bound 
within time and space. The deities meditated upon 
in each lunar day are different, gradually 



TANTRIC ART 31 


developing' from the first day to the day of the 
full moon, with the order of meditation reversed 
during the dark half of the lunar cycle. In some 
krcimci tantra practices, this dark half of the lunar 
sequence is filled with deities of the Kali order. 

Deities of each aspect of the day are in the 
form of nityas , eternal deities emanating in a 
sequence following the lunar calendar and 
dissolving into the central deity. Other samaya 
deities evolve in a specific time sequence 
transcending the sequence of nityas. Above these 
samaya deities, a higher level of time and space is 
meditated upon in the form of the nityas. The 
krama doctrine underlies the notion that the 
liberation of a yogin is to be in the centre of 
these successive layers and simultaneously the 
witnessing self of all that is evolving around it. 

Internal and External Time 
Time and space, according to tantra, are twofold: 
internal and external. External time is commonly 
experienced by all, but inner time is what a yogin 
experiences when entering his own pranic states. 
Since the deities are visualized as manifested in 
time, for the meditating yog'in intent upon 
experiencing the complete extension of the self in 
all possible realms, he needs to travel through 
inner time and inner space. Inner time coincides 
with outer time, except that the entire time cycle 
occurs within a single day of a yogin, with all 
dissolution and creation occurring within each 
breath, just as external time and space manifests 
and dissolves with each inhalation and exhalation 
of the supreme deity. The supreme deity is of the 
nature of autonomous pulsation in which the 
worlds are created and dissolved. The wheel of 
mandala depicts the reality that this pulsation is 
within the yogin who has been awakened. A 
mandala represents the most external phase of 
time in its outermost circle, moving gradually 
towards inner time depicted in the centre. All 
levels of time are experienced simultaneously in 
one instant, in a single mandala within the mind 
of a yogin. 

All the bhuvanas (cosmic worlds) are meditated 
upon in the same way within the body of a 
yogin. Common puranic and tantric concepts 
regard the cosmic worlds as seven ascending and 
seven descending, beginning from the earth 
outwards in spiral form. Tantric cosmology 
favours 118 or 224 cosmic worlds, and mandalas 
depict different sets of cosmic worlds embracing 



the body of a yogin. A common tantric mandala 
depicts a yogin riding a tortoise which in turn 
rides a frog that is standing on two cosmic eggs 
of red and white colours as the lower seat of 
Kundalini, representing the mother and father 
principles, which in the awakened form is 
visualized above the thousand-petalled lotus. The 
cosmic body depicted with deities that represent 
the aspects into which a mantra is divisible, 
possesses twelve or sixteen levels. The highest 
state is unmana or “beyond the mind”. The 
sequence of deities ending with the transcendent 
mind symbolizes that the mind is constructed of a 
matrix based upon time and space within 
sequence; here, a yogin manifests himself in 
different worlds. He liberates only when he rises 
above the wheel of succession. 

From the perspective of a practitioner, the 
perception of mandala is comparable to the 
perception of one’s own body. In the awakened 
state of mind, there is no limitation of time and 
space causing a yogin to perceive things separate 
from himself. Therefore, in viewing the mandala, 


6 

A mandala with mandalas 
within: Bagalamukhi Mandala. 
( Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of 
Cosmic Unity, Madhu Khanna, 
p. 126, figure 67). 







32 STHANESHWAR TIMALSINA 


he perceives himself, because for a yogin, time 
and space are not “outside”; these are within his 
own mind. Since the mandala governs the 
complete extension of time and space, it is neither 
“outside” nor “inside”; it is just the body of the 
yogin. This leads to the premise that the desire to 
depict beauty in the mandala is to preserve the 
beauty a yogin perceives in seeing all worlds 
within himself. This experience of beauty does not 
come through denial of one’s manifestation in the 
world; the mandala preserves the innate beauty 
within the very perceiver, who also is the admirer 
of the artwork. The real art, therefore, is a 
construction of the perceiver, who sees beauty 
within the object, and while admiring it, evokes 
his own true nature through the language of art. 
The world is painted within the mind of the 
yogin, with colour and design the expression of 
his mental modifications. That which can be 
painted is not the latent force, pratibha , but that 
which is painted illuminates the hidden pratibha. 

Aesthetic and Divine 

According to the texts and practices of tantra, 
aesthetic and spiritual experiences are identical. 
Thus the dichotomy of mundane and 
supramundane, immanent and transcendent, 
phenomenal and real, dissolve in the mandala 
reality. Experiences such as compassion, delusion, 
or hunger are aspects of divinity. Tripurasundari is 
also called Kameshwari, the mistress of kama . 34 
Kama is both passion and will. As passion, it 
signifies erotic desire; however, as volition, this 
dormant force underlying the self makes 
consciousness aware of something. Durga, the 
space-governing deity, is invoked as memory, 
wisdom, and compassion, 35 the deity being the 
persona of the qualities that define one’s 
individuality. The presence of these properties in 
the individual mind is the presence of the deity, 
while their absence indicates possession by 
demonic forces. Tripura is associated with the 
deity mandala of the deities that attract desire, 
mind, memory, endurance, and so forth. 36 Since all 
emotions are associated with one or another deity, 
every impression or feeling manifests divinity. 

Tantric art invokes mental states that 
correspond to certain deities. The closer one gets 


to these mental modes through aesthetic 
experience, the closer he gets to divine 
experience. From the tantric perspective, self- 
realization is nothing other than the purely 
aesthetic experience in the ecstatic mode, with 
desire in itself as divine. 

The extension of desire in space is Kamakala, 
which in Kali form, manifests the sequence of 
time as an embodiment of passion. Thus, space 
expands as the extroversion of desire, with time 
explicit within it as the inner controller of desire. 
Although extended in space, desire is experienced 
in time, in a single moment. In the expanse of 
space, desire manifests in the form of Tripura, and 
while in the mode of time, Kamakali is visualized 
atop a crescent moon, resembling Guhyakali in 
her form and gesture. This form of Kali is ecstasy 
herself, where erotic passion mingles with the fear 
of death. 

These beautific and horrific forms of Kamakala 
represent day and night. The first depiction of 
Kamakala contains the rising sun, always with the 
brilliance of infinite stars, whereas the second is 
shown as black and riding the moon. This twofold 
imagery parallels that found in the yogic body, 
with two channels representing the sun and 
moon, on the right and left side, while indicating 
prana and apana. In Kamakala’s lustful gestures, 
desire masks death lurking within, whereas in her 
horrific image, unending bliss is concealed. She is 
thus both concealing illusion and illuminating 
wisdom. 

Erotic experience presupposes an external 
object to receive pleasure. But for the yogin 
meditating on Kamakala, all instances are erotic. 
When the mind of a yogin remains free from 
objects, he is in the state of brahman , while every 
instance of thought is indulgence. 

The traditional metaphor for consciousness is 
fire ( chidagni ), identical with erotic desire 
(kamagni). This same fire extends into time and 
space as kama, whereas dissolution into its pure 
nature is chidagni. The objects of kamagni are 
external, whereas the objects of the fire of 
awareness ( samvidagni ) are internal or mental 
entities. The first unfolds the entities outwards 
whereas the next dissolves them within. These 
two fires of passion and awareness replicate the 
divine opening and closing of eyelids, which is 
the manifestation and contraction of the world. 
The fire of awareness subsides with the offering 
of internal objects, and when all are consumed, 



TANTRIC ART 


33S 


prakasha (light) shines forth. In the fire of 
consciousness, subject and object arise and 
dissolve together. The face of Kalasankarshini, 
pure flame, is the fundamental principle, 
consciousness in itself, which is the origin of 
passionate desire for objects identical with a 
paradoxical volition to transcend it. In Srichakra, 
Kameshwari resides in a triangle directly outside 
the central bindu of Mahatripurasundari. In the 
case of Kamakala in the Kali tradition, she is 
higher than other forms of Kali, but she too 
immolates in fire, transforming into 
Mahachandayogeshwari. 

Passionate desire manifests within the rasa 
experience. As a single consciousness assumes the 
forms of all concepts, or as a single deity 
manifests in the form of mandala, so too, a single 
rasa manifests in various forms. A single thought 
assumes its own world of time and space within, 
identical to a single rasa that embodies subsidiary 
modifications. When these manifest outwards in 
the mundane world, the common aesthetic 
experience results, and when merging with the 
heart, it becomes the yogic experience. 

Unmanifest rasa is the true nature of the self. 
A specific configuration of consciousness emerges 
as a deity, in itself the expression of a particular 
rasa. The experience of rasa depends upon time 
and space, but when identical with the inner 
nature of experience, this is divine, and yogins 
realize it through the mandala. This is not 
“outside”, but rather lies in oneself, with the outer 
conditions and elements stimulating the 
unmanifest form of rasa , which is the aesthetic 
experience. 

Glossary 
apana = apana 

Bhuvaneshwari = BhuvanesvarT 

chakra = cakra 

Dikpala = Dikpala 

Durga = Durga 

Gayatri = Gayatrl 

Guhyakali = Guhyakall 

Kalachakra = Kalacakra 

Kalagni = Kalagni 

Kalana = Kalana 

Kalasankarshini = Kalasarikarsinl 

Kali = Kali 

Kama = Kama 

Kamagni = Kamagni 

Kamakala = Kamakala 


Kubjika = Kubjika 
Kundalini = Kundalini 

Mahachandayogeshwari = Mahacandayogesvari 

Mahatripurasundari = Mahatripurasundari 

Mahakala = Mahakala 

Mahartha = Mahartha 

Mandala = Mandala 

Matrika = Matrka 

Nada = Nada 

Nirvanabhairava = Nirvanabhairava 

Nitya = Nitya 

Prakasha = Prakasa 

Prana = Prana 

Pratibha = Pratibha 

Samaya = Samaya 

Shaiva = Saiva 

Shakti = Sakti 

Srichakra = Srlcakra 

Sristikali = Srstikall 

Tripurasundari = Tripurasundarl 

Unmana = Unmana 

Vimarsha = Vimarsa 

Vishnu = Visnu 

Notes 

The Sanskrit terms in the body of the essay arc 
without diacritical marks. For precision of language, 
see the glossary. 

1. Even though the fundamental principles 
concerning time in Hindu and Buddhist tantras are 
nearly identical, we focus primarily on Hindu tantras. 

2. The description of Tripura in Satapathabrahmana 
(SB 6.3.3.24-25) represents the early mandala concept. 
Early forts seem to ineoiporate the mandala concept 
(Parpola 194-95). The SB (10.5.2) describes 
Mandalapurusopasana, or visualization of the purusa in 
mandala. 

3. SB (6.3.3.24-25) relates mandala with space. Pur , 
city, plays a central role in subsequent tantric 
symbolism, Tripura being the primordial divinity. SB's 
identification of mrtyu, death, as the sun, and the self 
or purusa (SB 10.5.2.3-4), on the other hand, highlights 
the aspect of time in the mandala. 

4. Texts such as Citrasutra give precise details of 
the paintings, whereas others, including the Mayamata, 
Mdnasdra, and Silparatna focus on Indian architecture. 
Considered representative texts, they primarily 
concentrate on proportional precision, with less 



34 STHANESHWAR TIMALS1NA 


emphasis on the concepts that undergird the models 
they are describing. However, reading these texts 
nonetheless reveals the primacy of time and space as 
the matrix of the images and structures. 

5. Differences in the living traditions of Hayagrlva, 
Anandabhairava, and Daksinamurti give a glimpse of 
the variety found in the ritual worship of Sricakra. 

6. Jagaccitram samalikhya svecchdtulikaydtmani/ 
svayam eva samdlokya pnnati bhagavan sivah// 

7. The fundamental principle of the Trika Saiva 
doctrines is that the Absolute Siva is autonomous in 
manifesting the world; he does not need any external 
impulse, material, or instrumental elements to create it. 
In the case of an artist, he requires external elements 
which become the “ground" or support of the art, like 
the stone used to make an image. But when art is 
complete, the external elements become subordinate. If 
one admires a painting, one is not admiring the canvas 
or the colours. 

8. Yd caisa pratibhd tattatpadarthakramarusitd/ 
akramanantacidrupahpramdtd sa mahesvarah// 

(IP 1.7.1). 

9. Kriyajndnecchodyogapratibhdsvabhdvasrsti- 
sthi tisa m h d ra n d k by a bhdsasvarupa taya nisk rsya n te 
Maharthamanjari-Parimala (MMP , on verse 39). 

10. Svdtantryasaktih kramasamsisrksa, kramdtmatd 
ceti vibhor vibhutih/tadeva devitrayam antar dstam, 
anyttaram me prathayet svarupam// (TA 1.5). 

11. Murtivaicitryato desakramam abhasayatyasau/ 
kriydvaicitry>anirbhasdt kalakramatn apisvarah// 

(IP 2.1.5). 

12. Yada sd paramdsaktih svecchayd visvarupini/ 
sphurattdm dtmanah pasyet tada cakrasya sambhavah// 
Yogimhrdaya (YH 1.9-10). 

13. Caitanyam atma (5S 1.1). 

14. Citih svatantra visvasiddhihetu (PH 1). 

15. Svecchayah svabhittau visvam unmilayati (PH 2). 

16. Tan nand anurupagrahyagrdhakabheddt (PH 3). 

17. Jagrat, svapna, susupti , and turiya are the four 
stages found in Upanisadic and tantric literature. 
However, tantric texts and practices focus on the fifth 
stage, turiydtita , which is beyond the fourth. Some 
tantras mention even further stages such as sarvdtita , 
or “that which transcends all”. 

18. Anuttaranandacitir icchasaktau niyojita/trikonam 
iti tat prahur visargdnandasundaram//meyamdt- 
pramdmdnaprasaraih sankucatprabham/srngdtarupam 
dpannam icchdjnanakriydtmakam/i ( Paratrimsikd ). 


19. Sitasonabinduyagalam 

vi vi k tas i vasa ktisakucatprasara m/vaga rthasrst i h etuh 
paraspardmipravistavispastam// (KKV 6). 

20. Kdlo dvidhatra vijneyah sanras cddhydtmikah 
priye/Svacchandatantra 7.2. . . . kdlo dvidha ity 
ekarupo ’pi bahyabhyantaratayd samsthitah . . . 

Uddyota of Ksemaraja upon Svacchandatantra 7.2. 

21. Abhinavagupta gives sixteenfold meanings of 
anuttara in Paratrisikdvivarana , 1. 

22. The state of vidikriydyam svatantrah (one free in 
the act of knowing) rests upon awareness as the 
cosmic centre, which is depicted as a drop in ritual 
mandalas. 

23. Yada sd parama saktih svecchayd visvarupini/ 
sphurattdm dtmanah pasyet tada cakrasya sambhavah// 
( Yogi ?i F h rdaya 1.9-10). 

24. Bindor vikasanarupatn sneakram nama vakatum 
udyame. Cidvalli of Natanandanatha in KKV 9. 

25. For erotic and esoteric applications of bindu, see 
Kiss of the Yogini, 236-45. 

26. Terms such as ciddkdsa, cidgagana, cidiryoman 
arc frequent in texts such as Vijiidnabhairava , 
Cidgaganacandrikd of Srlvatsa, Pidvildsastava of 
Amrtananda, besides other texts. This usage needs to 
be closely analysed in relation to Buddhist and Saiva 
usage of sunya and sunyatd. 

27. Kapila Vatsyayan, The Square and the Circle of 
the Indian Arts. 

28. Mahdbhairavacandograghorakcili\ for instance, is 
the twelfth stage, where the succession culminates. 
Abhinavagupta, however, prefers the Mahartha system 
that advocates transcendence of the wheel by Kali with 
the thirteenth form of Kalasankarsinl. 

29. Mata mdnam meyam bmdutrayabhinnabxjarupdni/ 
dhamatrayapUhatrayasaktitrayabhedabhdvitany api ca// 
tesu kramena lihgatritayam tadvacca mdtrkatrttayam/ 
ittham tritayapun yd tunyapithddibhedim vidya// 

(KKV 13-14). 

30. This description follows the Devundhatmya, 
Chapter 5. 

31. In Chapter 4 of The Triadic Heart of Shiva, 

“The heart as ultimate reality”, Paul Muller-Ortega 
explains the spiritual symbolism of the heart in tantric 
literature. 

32. Ganesagrahanaksatrayogimrdsirupinim/devim 
mantramayxm naumi matrkdm pitharupinim// 
(Nityasodasikarnava 1.1). 

33. Brahma, Visnu, Rudra, Isvara, and Sadasiva are 
depicted as the five pretas, the deities that undergo the 
cycle of time. Alternate texts begin with Indra and 
exclude Isvara. 

34. Asind bindumaye cakre sd tripurasundari devi/ 




kamesvarahkanilaya kalaya candrasya kalpitottamsa// 
(KKV 37). 

35. Besides other qualities, the aspects of daya, 
medha, smrti, citi of the deity are invoked in the Fifth 
chapter of the Devtmdhatmya. 

36. Kamakarsini, Cittakarsim, Smrtyakarsim, and 
Dhairyakarsim are the deities visualized in the sixteen- 
petallcd lotus, which is worshipped in the second wheel 
of Srlcakra. 

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